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Thursday, December 24, 2020

James Gunn (July 12, 1923 – December 23, 2020)

 James Gunn was a science fiction writer, an educator, an advocate for science and all points between. No one quite codified the field as this man did. His life spanned nearly a century: from flappers to the Depression and WWII, to the economic boom of 1950s (including the proliferation of SF magazines) to Vietnam and counter culture, to the New Wave to the Cyberpunks, all the way to the present. He'd seen much.

He started in radio and moved to SF, publishing in Startling and Thrilling Wonder Stories in 1949. Considering the flowering of the field, it was the perfect time to enter. His first big sale would have been the next year to John W. Campbell's Astounding,  the leading SF magazine of the time, and in Amazing, the oldest SF magazine. 

Comparatively, it was a strange time to publish SF. Novels were not as common as the magazines, so one could find a home for their stories and later reassemble them into novels. Once the book market opened a lot of writers did that, so that it seemed the best way to make novels (Ray Bradbury's Martian Chronicles, for instance, was sold as a novel, but was really just a collection). 

Throughout Gunn's career, this was how he often built novels. He considered the novelette the ideal length for SF, and would publish them first in the magazines, later as a novel. Sometimes the stories were more successful as stories, sometimes as novels. Usually, the first story in the series got him the most attention. Examples:

  1. "The Cave of Night" opened Station in Space and was reprinted by Judith Merrill and Isaac Asimov as among the best of SF published that year.
  2. "Child of the Sun" opened Crisis! and was reprinted by Arthur W. Saha and Donald A. Wollheim as among the best of SF published that year.
  3. "The Listeners" of the novel The Listeners was up for the Nebula award and reprinted by Poul Anderson as among the best of SF published that year. [The novel was the runner-up for the Campbell award]
  4. "The Giftie" of the novel Gift from the Stars was up for the Sturgeon award and won the Analog reader's poll.
The novel The Immortals is sort of an exception where Barry Malzberg thought the opening novelette, "New Blood"  was an important work of the 50s, where as Isaac Asimov thought "The Immortal" was an important story of the year. It became a TV series of the same name. If you want SF built for fun, this is probably the best place to start.

"Breaking Point" from the collection of the same name is another starting place if you like short stories. It's a kind of Twilight Zone in space, if memory serves. Brian Aldiss collected it for his Space Opera anthology.   

While he wrote fun stuff, his main aim, it seemed to me, evolved until his goal was to make SF realistic. How might it really happen? He liked the fun stuff, but he wanted to make SF serious (contrast this with the image above--fun, absurd, and perhaps helpful for sales off the magazine rack, but it undermined the serious intent that some wanted to invest in the field).   

He won a Hugo for his scholarly book about Isaac Asimov, Foundations. Asimov's SF, the magazine, will be publishing the last story he wrote next year. They also have an essay about religion and SF. The marvel of Jim Gunn--one of the reasons many called him a gentleman--was that everything was up for discussion, in person, in stories. You could disagree with him, and it did not affect your friendship. It will be good for humanity if we could have more of his kind on the planet.

I studied under him several times both online and in person: to learn about SF and stories. When it came to SF, his advice was always wise.

I restarted his online classes, and he tasked me to round up students. To make it happen, I had to use myself twice, once as myself and once as a pseudonym. I divided my artsy self from my science-y self and wrote SF and speculative stories. I varied my critiques, likewise. My critiques for myself, which might seem to be tricky, weren't too hard as they described what I intended to do in the next draft. I pulled off the pseudonym so well, that when I admitted to what I'd done, he didn't believe me. I pointed out that I paid for "both" students, which I think I must have originally explained that "he" didn't have a checking account. Electric Velocipede, a fun little zine sadly no longer in print, published the story under my real name.

I reviewed a number of his works over the years and interviewed James Gunn here.

If new memories occur to me, I'll add them here, later. 

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